Is the future of in-game customization stuck behind a paywall?

Nobody can deny the popularity of customization within games. The market is huge, whether people are camouflaging their favorite gun or a piece of clothing for their toon.

The more players get involved, especially with games which have strong character progress and customization, the more players become invested in that character and will want that character to reflect their personality.


Due to this, we’re seeing growth in the amount of publishers that put customization options behind a pay wall, a trend that looks set to continue. The latest game to cash in on this is arguably the biggest of them all, Call of Duty. Now players can purchase ‘Customisation packs’ which include reticules, camouflages and calling cards. Dan Amrich of Activision explained “”At the end of the day, all of these items are completely optional, and were created for players who’ve asked for more customization options. If that’s not you, that’s fine.”

In these packs, national flags can be unlocked for player’s calling cards. If you’ll remember, these were free in Modern Warfare 2 and came with the game’s multiplayer. Content like this, which will sell because people will want to represent their country, is being cut from games and then being re-sold later on. Amrich’s response is a textbook example of how companies will defend this. He’s more or less dressed up the phrase “you don’t have to buy it”.

Surely when players want more customization options it’s because what the game initially offers isn’t appropriate for their needs? That might even be part of a whole new gameplan for the future; give the consumer less so they’ll want more, then deliver it with a price tag.

There are plenty of reasons for players to customize. In fact, this level of creativity has been used to promote charitable causes. Back in October of 2011, a charity campaign titled “Waves of Charity 2.0: Pink Lancers Fight Cancer” was launched for Gears of War 3. This was just one of the many events taking place as part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. While this was a community made event, it received heavy backing from the industry, including Gears developers, Epic Games.

For players to show their support for the charity, they were encouraged to use the pink skin on their Lancer. The catch? The skin was behind a pay wall of 240MSP. This is where the ideology of ‘companies need to make money’ hits a wall. Neither Epic Games or Microsoft planned or intended this to happen with the pink Lancer skin, but on paper, they appear to have made money off the back of a charitable event.



Before long, all types of in-game customisation are likely to be found behind a pay wall. Character costumes that were once unlocked for completing some comical or amazing feat in-game, are being replaced with a £1.50 price tag. It’s a path we can no longer ignore or avoid, but there are more consumer friendly options out there.

In this case, Guild Wars 2 is sure to end up being referred to as the game that got microtransactions ‘right’. The in-game currency, gems –  used to purchase in-game items – can be bought with real money or traded for in-game gold. The Guild Wars 2 store is full of skins, backpacks, hats and more. I want to see more of this. I want to see consumers given a choice rather than having one choice dumped on them; open their wallet.

It’s basic economics. When players see that a company is being considerate of the consumer rather than themselves, it’s more likely they will buy their product. You only need to look as far as EA to see that their controversial choices are having a detrimental effect.

The Dota 2 and Team Fortress 2 system of selling custom character items are another example of a system that should be more widespread. Hats and skins are created by the community, but the community can also make money from them.

Last year, Gabe Newell said that somebody was making £97,000 a year making hats for Team Fortress 2. In free-to-play games like Team Fortress 2, the majority, if not all, of the customizable options will be behind a paywall because that’s how the F2P model works. The only time it becomes a problem is when that system is implemented in games that somebody has already spent £40 on.


We all understand and appreciate that companies need to make money in this difficult economic climate, but what companies also need to realise is that we’re not bathing ourselves in tubs of gold either.

However, no matter what we say, the market is already changed and we’re past the point of no return. From now on, customization options will likely be the first thing to get cut out of any game and put behind a pay wall due to them not directly affecting the core gameplay. Yet when games such as Halo, Dota 2, World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2 offer such compelling choice in how we can make our characters look and how we can make them our own, it would be a great shame to lose that to the greed of individual companies.

Right now, there is a still a wide variety of free customization options available to players out of the box, but the consumer is slowly being tested to see how much of that can be removed.

The phrase of the moment is ‘vote with your wallets’. So, do it. Show your support for fair and ethical systems used in the likes of Guild Wars 2 and Team Fortress 2.  Companies will soon realize that those methods of selling best appeal to the consumer and will be forced to adapt and adjust.

The only person who can change the landscape of the industry is you. Companies will always gravitate to where money can be made in the long-term, not where they can make a quick, flash buck.


About the author

Joey Edwards

Philosopher of video games and the internet. A wise man once told me "I'm here and I'm ready. They're not. Bring it."